Jewish Currents 2020 Year in Review

A look back at the work we published this year that made the biggest impact.

The Editors
December 28, 2020
Photo: Andrew Banham via Shutterstock

2020 HAS BEEN A YEAR of protest and political upheaval, set against the backdrop of illness, isolation, and death. Throughout this tumultuous year, we have sought to articulate a new vision for Jewish political engagement, and to provide our readers with the intellectual resources to better understand and reimagine their place in the world. As 2020 draws to a close, we’re looking back on the work we published this year. Here’s a selection of some of the pieces that made the biggest impact.

In March, as Covid-19 upended our world, we struggled to reassess our relationship to work. In her essay “No One Is Well,” Editor-in-Chief Arielle Angel reflected on that question and concluded that to pry open political possibility in a catastrophic moment, “we will need to begin to replace the logics of capitalism with the logics of care.” And in a subsequent staff roundtable, we discussed and debated the nature of our responsibility in the moment.

We soon decided that one thing we could offer our readers during the long period of confinement was spiritual nourishment. Our “Provisions” series invited writers to reflect on poems they were holding close in a difficult time. We also hosted the “Slow Burn: Quarantine Edition” reading series on the Book of Exodus, a parsha-by-parsha conversation among critics rereading this ancient text of liberation from the strange vantage of quarantine.

We found that the pandemic provided opportunities to help spread crucial practical information. In the early days of the pandemic, our guide “How to Give Yourself an Abortion”—written by Arielle Swernoff and illustrated by Matt Lubchansky, published online in January—found a wider readership; the renewed circulation served as a grim reminder of the dismal state of reproductive rights in this country. Later this year, amidst an eviction crisis, we followed up with “How to Organize Your Building,” also illustrated by Matt Lubchansky, and co-written by Rose Lenehan and Tracy Jeanne Rosenthal.

A storefront in New York City, June 1st, 2020. Photo: Lev Radin via Shutterstock

In May, crises multiplied as a national Black-led uprising erupted in the wake of George Floyd’s killing by police in Minneapolis. Anthony Russell wrote a remarkable essay about the task of translating the phrase “Black Lives Matter” into Yiddish and confronting the exclusionary context embedded in the language. Ben Ratskoff challenged white Jews to understand their relationship to the racial justice movement outside the framework of analogous victimhood. As pundits raised familiar objections to property damage as a protest tactic, Zoé Samudzi spoke with Vicky Osterweil, author of In Defense of Looting, about the meaning of a riot, and the relationship between property rights and white supremacy. And as American Jewish groups rushed to show their support for racial justice, Mari Cohen reported on how these groups were skirting support for the broader politics of the Black Lives Matter movement.

As we responded to these crises in the wider world, we also turned our attention to important stories in the Jewish world. In the winter of last year, a series of tragic attacks on Orthodox Jews in the New York area brought renewed attention to the relationships between Orthodox communities and their neighbors. Solidarity was the watchword in the days and weeks after the attacks. Several months later, with Covid-19 ravaging the city, New York’s Haredi communities returned to the center of city politics. Joshua Leifer examined the New York mayor’s long relationship to the very communities he seemed to single out for criticism, as well as the rise of a new “Heimish populism”: a pugilistic Trumpist Orthodox politics which exploded onto the streets of Brooklyn’s Borough Park neighborhood in the tense weeks leading up to the November elections. In one of our biggest stories of the year, printed in our Fall themed issue on housing, Britta Lokting and Sam Adler-Bell investigated the largest instance of voter fraud in modern US history in an upstate New York town, where tensions between veteran residents and Haredi newcomers had reached a fever pitch.

An Orthodox protester in Borough Park, Brooklyn. Still from Fox 5 newscast via YouTube

Even as campuses closed, attempts by Israel-advocacy groups to quash Palestine solidarity and anti-occupation activism continued, nearly unabated. Early in the year, Mairav Zonszein reported on the decision by the Ethical Culture Fieldston School to fire JB Brager, a young history teacher and Jewish anti-Zionist. For our Spring print issue, Natasha Roth-Rowland examined the ongoing campaign by right-wing “lawfare” groups to make support for the Palestinian cause not just beyond the pale, but illegal. Throughout the year, Gabi Kirk followed the attempts by Israel-advocacy groups to derail the California Department of Education’s new ethnic studies curriculum. 

Some of our most important pieces of the year challenged our community and generated productive—if difficult—conversations. In July, when Israel seemed to be on the brink of annexing the West Bank, we published “Yavne: A Jewish Case for Equality in Israel-Palestine,” by our new editor-at-large Peter Beinart, which challenged the two-state consensus in the American Jewish community. In October, when Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died on the first night of Rosh Hashanah, we probed the meaning of the religious tone to the spectacle of mourning, examining what it told us about the current state of liberal American Jewry.

In a difficult year, we still managed to find some levity amidst the darkness, from Andrea Long Chu’s delightfully acerbic review of a novel about Hillary Clinton, to our staff roundtables on recent films: the Safdie brothers’ Uncut Gems, Seth Rogen’s An American Pickle, and Aaron Sorkin’s The Chicago Seven

The Jewish Currents staff wishes all of our readers a happy and healthy new year. Here’s to a better 2021.